ZBLAN and Exotic Fibers

Extremely high quality optical fibers with much lower attenuation and much wider wavelength range (spectrum window).

Last updated: 2019-02-05

Status

Made In Space has demonstrated pulling ZBLAN optical fiber on ISS and is planning further missions.
FOMS, Physical Optics Corporation and Flawless Fiber are in development.
Very latest research is pointing towards Earth-based solutions using very rapid cooling and magnetic fields.

Applications

  • Telecommunications.
  • Lasers for medical & scientific applications (photonics).
  • Military applications like night vision and infrared countermeasures.
  • Remote sensing payloads.
  • Thermal imaging.
  • Spectroscopy (imaging).
  • Radiation resistant data links.

Why & Solution

Making ZBLAN glass results in crystallization or the formation of tiny imperfections. Research has shown that it does not happen in microgravity.

Telecommunications sector is facing exponential growth in bandwidth transmission. With almost half of the population in the world not yet online and much higher bandwidth applications like 5G networks, 4K streaming and virtual reality applications still to come, the growth will not be slowing down any time soon. Current solution is to keep building new undersea cables.

Major advantages of ZBLAN are much lower attenuation (signal weakening) and much wider wavelength range. Lower attenuation would reduce the need for repeaters, which are also a security risk and increase latency. Wider wavelength range would allow the transfer of much more data through ZBLAN cable by using many lasers with different wavelengths. There is a large number of spacecraft, scientific, medical and defense equipment working in the infrared wavelength range.

Companies






Revenue Estimation

One kilogram of ZBLAN yields 2.2 kilometers of ZBLAN fiber.1

Another source claimed that in theory a kilogram of preform can produce 3 km of fiber, but thickness not specified. 3

Articles by NASA state that one kilogram of exotic glass feedstock can be expected to produce from 3 to 7 kilometers of fibers in under an hour in microgravity. 3

Selling 2 km of fiber at $150 per meter would total to $300,000. Best case scenario woud be selling 3 km of fiber at $1000 per meter for a total of $3000000.

Cost Estimation

According to “Market Analysis of a Privately Owned and Operated Space Station” from 2017 by US Science and Technology Policy Institute, ZBLAN sells for $175 to $1000 per meter, depending on the quality of the fiber (ThorLabs, FiberLabs) .1

Another study set commercial market price for ZBLAN fibers at $150/meter to $300/meter and best quality exotic fibers from $300/meter to $3,000/meter. 4

Market Size Estimation

Fiber optic market
According to Grand View Research, the fibre optics industry had gross global sales of €4.7 billion in 2015. 5

Another study estimated the fibre optic market will expand at a CAGR of 10% during 2017-2023 and is anticipated to reach the valuation of €5.2 billion by the 2023. 6

According to IBISWorld, the revenue for the optical fibre and cable manufacturing industry is expected to increase 16.0% to $53.75 billion in 2018 and has been growing at an average annualized rate of 19.2%.7

ZBLAN market
According to “Market Analysis of a Privately Owned and Operated Space Station” published in 2017, the sales of ZBLAN form a very small part of the $3 billion market, but analyst estimated that ZBLAN might be able to capture sales of €260 million to €350 million annually, which would be 10 to 13 percent of the current market. They authors estimated that iff ZBLAN increases its market share by 1 percentage point per year over the next decade, by 2028 its share is likely to be in that range.1

Figure on slide 18 released by NASA Emerging Space Office in 2014 illustrates the potential market share for ZBLAN applications and sets the total at $20 billion.2

In 2006, ZBLAN fibre market was estimated to be $7.56 billion per year. NASA published news based on Kessler Market Intelligence: Spectroscopy $15 Million, Laser Surgery $25 Million, Imaging Fiber Bundle $15 Million, Telecommunications $7500 Million. 8

In 1998, NASA estimated that the commercial potential for ZBLAN to be $2.5 billion a year in the communications industry. 9

Risks

  • Market size (niche market)
  • Number of customers
  • Preform cost
  • Transmission loss versus cost
  • Patents

References

  1. Keith W. Crane et al. Market Analysis of a Privately Owned and Operated Space Station. IDA Science & Technology Policy Institute. Published in March 2017. Source

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  2. Ioana Cozmuta et al. Space Portal NASA Ames Research Center. Microgravity-Based Commercialization Opportunities for Material Sciences and Life Sciences: A Silicon Valley Perspective. Source

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  3. Ioana Cozmuta and Daniel J. Rasky. Exotic Optical Fibers and Glasses: Innovative Material Processing Opportunities in Earth's Orbit. Published in 2017 in New Space. Source

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  4. CMAPP: Commercial Microgravity Applications Pilot Project. Source

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  5. Fiber Optics Market Size, Grand View Research, 2018. Source

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  6. Fiber Optic Market Share, Market Research Future, 2018. Source

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  7. Optical Fiber and Cable Manufacturing Industry in China, IBISWorld, 2018. Source

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  8. ZBLAN Fiber market Prediction. Source: Kessler Market Intelligence, Newport, RI. Source

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  9. ZBLAN commercial potential, Dave Dooling, NASA, 1998. Source

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